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Do we really want faster trains?

Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, a transport specialist and an ad man, have recently written an interesting book which covers some high-level questions about customer service. It is called Transport For Humans: Are We Nearly There Yet? They argue that customer service is judged in terms of finite measurements such as speed and frequency. So, for example, in measuring people's satisfaction with rail services, the measures of customer service that seem to be taken into account are the speed of the journey and the frequency of the trains. They argue that the reason for these measures are because they are easy to ask and assess.

However, true satisfaction with the service provided by the railway may have nothing to do with the measures that are used. For example, these measures wouldn’t take into account the dissatisfaction you feel as you hang around a cold and draughty station for half an hour before your train shows up. If you are ever doing the journey from London to Manchester you will have stood with hundreds of other passengers, staring at the departure board which says that the train is being "prepared" but without stating the platform from which it will leave. When it does disclose the platform there is a stampede. It is not a great experience.

In the meantime, a couple of other trains to Manchester may leave but your ticket isn't valid on them because you have bought an “advance” which commits you to a specific train and time. Sutherland and Dyson reason that so much extra satisfaction could be achieved if for a small price you were allowed to board one of the earlier trains. This would reduce the pressure on the later train, it would accommodate space available on the earlier trains, and it would make everyone feel happier. However, where is this measure of service in the train operators’ manual? It doesn't exist because it is hard to measure.

This is a lesson to us in the field of customer service. We shouldn't confine our measurements to things that can easily be asked. We need to get below the surface of what people want. A longer train journey may be perfectly acceptable if it is cheaper, the catering is superb, and the on-board entertainment is second to none.


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